The Real Story on Press Trips for Travel Writers

“I had one question about press trips, which I thought you might be able to address on the blog or in the newsletter, if you think it makes sense. I’m wondering which markets accept press trips. As a follow-up, does a writer typically secure the assignment first, or the trip first (there seems to be a chicken-or-egg thing happening there)? Hope you’ll be able to address these questions on the site — thanks!”

HondurasThis was an e-mail from a beginning writer who read Travel Writing 2.0 and then it has come up many times since in my online travel writing course. After all, with the sucky pay and lack of security that often come with being a travel freelancer or blogger in the early stages, the travel perks are one of the main incentives to keep doing it.

I pay for my own travel a good bit because my income can justify it and I do lots of travel hacking for points and miles, but at least half the time I don’t. Someone else is footing the bill to get me to come write about Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, or various parts of Mexico and the USA—to name a few places I’ve gotten invited the past few years.

So here’s the skinny on press trips (sometimes call “fam trips,” for “familiarization”).

How press trips for writers or bloggers work

A destination, hotel chain, or other interested party will invite writers to come experience what they offer in order to get more publicity and (sometimes) social media attention for that place/business. With traditional press trips, writers are invited as a group, anywhere from 4 to 40 people showing up from various dots on a map to one cental place.

Depending on how it’s organized, those writers will either have every waking minute monopolized with a set itinerary for all, or there will be several interest tracks and/or some individual wandering time. Often this involves being carted from place to place on a van or bus, though at a beach/ski resort or on something like a safari you may stay in one place most of the time.

winery tours

Most or all of your expenses will be covered, including meals–sometimes too many meals that take up a lot of time. Often booze will be covered if it’s allowed by the hosting organization. (Some are government entities and can’t pay for that, though a participating sponsor like a winery can). They want you to enjoy yourself and feel positive about the experience. In some cases, especially for a tour company, you may be responsible for your own airfare or driving, then the rest is taken care of when you join up with the group.

There’s also something called individual hosting where you come in by yourself and experience what you need to for a specific article slant. Obviously this is much more desirable in the pursuit of a good narrative story and you don’t waste as much time on irrelevant stops, but for both budget and logistics reasons, this is often not possible.

Who gets invited on press trips?

Somebody is paying for all this: usually a whole combination of organizations. That’s often why the schedule is so packed—everyone who chipped in is on the itinerary in some form. This is, at heart, a business transaction. They spend marketing money with the hope you’ll provide a good return on investment. Add up airfare, hotel, meals, and transportation and they could be spending thousands of dollars per press person.

So they invite the people who will get them the most impact: high-circulation magazines, high-traffic websites, TV shows, or influential blogs. In some cases, they believe social media is going to make a big difference so they bring in Instagram “influencers” who will get lots of likes on flattering photos.

Are YOU worth it?

For editors of magazines, major website editors, and bloggers that get millions of readers, it’s a no-brainer. Of course you’re worth inviting if you’re one of those. If the subject matter of the publication is a good match for what they’re promoting, easy decision. The next tier is freelancers with a good track record or a set assignment. This is more risky now in the age of declining print outlets, so you may need to provide an assignment letter from a publication. (More on that in a minute.)

If you’re a writer without a good portfolio of placed articles, or your blog doesn’t have a strong or highly engaged readership you can substantiate, you’re a riskier bet. This doesn’t mean you can’t get invited, but you have to make a very strong case that what you deliver will be worthwhile. It’s a good idea to have a media kit page or hard stats on the About Us/Me page of your blog or website. Or get that info and have it ready if you’re writing for someone else’s site. Ideally this shows traffic, social media followers, e-mail newsletter subscribers, or anything else (like awards won) that gives you credibility.

Tequila tourism

Can you contact a destination or company and ask to be hosted?

Yes, by all means be proactive, assuming you’ve got a good pitch backed up with stats and you can clearly explain why you want to visit this place. It’s common practice to contact the PR person and ask if it’s possible to get on a press trip or arrange individual hosting.

If you can get yourself there without a flight—another reason to report on your local region—they’ll be much more receptive. Or can you use frequent flier mileage? (One credit card sign-up bonus can get you to almost anywhere in the world round-trip.) Can you tack this onto a vacation? Can you get there overland from somewhere else you’re going? If so, mention that and your odds go up substantially. The hosts get many things for free or discounted because of local relationships, but these days flights almost always require a hit to the budget.

If you get a no, don’t push it. Ask when it would be okay to try again, as in the next budget cycle. Some keep a folder of forms filled out by writers who have expressed an interest. They pull it out when a the next press trip gets planned. If it’s a “please don’t ever call us again,” move on to somewhere else. They don’t think your angle/publication can be justified. Try again when you have a bigger audience or better outlets.

Understand that some of these people get bugged to death by bloggers/writers who should not even have the nerve to ask in the first place. Some PR people have told me they get a hundred requests a month from mommy bloggers that don’t seem to have any readers besides their immediate family. One famous Mexican resort area gets hundreds every week. Make the point person’s job easy by showing real influence and specifically saying what you’ll do for them. Don’t make it too long in the initial pitch. The clearer the message, the better chance of success.

Who will accept stories from hosted trips?

This used to be a big issue, with many magazines saying they wouldn’t publish an article that came out of a press trip. These days, however, a better question is, who won’t? This is becoming a shorter list every year as some formerly nose-in-the-air newspapers and magazines have had to lower or cut expenses for freelancers. Without paying expenses, they don’t have the right to tell writers they can’t accept hosting. Even National Geographic Traveler, whose former editor used to say they would never ever allow hosting, had to relent in the year before they went out of business. They just couldn’t afford this stance anymore.

Some still have the balls to do it anyway, the New York Times being a prime example. But most publications have gotten more sensible as they’ve noticed it doesn’t make one bit of difference anyway in the articles: a good writer is going to tell the truth whether the expenses are paid by the publisher or by the industry—either way it’s not coming out of the writer’s pocket. (The influence of advertisers is much stronger anyway, including what even gets published to start with.)

The short answer is that some of the few newspapers that still have a travel section still prohibit stories that came from hosted trips. Maybe a half dozen travel magazines still have this policy in some form. I don’t know of any popular independent website or blog that would prohibit it since almost none of them pay expenses, but you may occasionally run into this. Most just want you to let them know up as you are discussing the assignment.

Do I need a firm assignment as a freelancer?

Here’s where the question of whether the chicken or the egg came first is the issue. If you’re a freelancer only, usually you need a set assignment or a regular column to be approved. Unlike all the bloggers out there, you don’t have editorial control, so you are a risk. Nearly every PR person has gotten burned at some point by someone who went on a trip and then never published a story. Even if the freelancer had an assignment, things can go wrong—like the assigning editor getting laid off or the magazine going out of business. But the best, most reliable writers always have a plan B. Going back to when I was just a freelancer, I’ve never gone on a trip that hasn’t resulted in at least one article being published, usually I produce several. Now, that combined with the fact that I run several popular blogs and a couple online magazine means I get twice as many invites as I can accept. I’m a sure thing.

If you are not as experienced and don’t have editorial control anywhere, you will need to get an assignment first. That’s even harder than getting on the trip, especially since if it’s a trip with a big group, multiple other writers will be sending out queries on the same place/subject. Plus most editors, including me at Perceptive Travel, are very reluctant to assign something to someone who is visiting a place for the first time. The angle is usually too nebulous. There are too many things that can send a planned story in a totally different direction.

It’s a Catch-22 and the only way around it is to have a go-to publication where you’re a regular or run your own site. Hey at least that second option is viable. Before the web came along, we writers had to query print editors for every trip—in actual envelopes with a stamp! Now the top 50 or even 100 travel bloggers are getting more readers than most travel magazines, so they can reach more people and it’s a sure thing.

How to improve your odds of getting invited on press trips

There are natural things you can do to make the cut on more press trip invites. Going to conferences helps a lot once you have something to talk about. Travel Media Showcase is a great one for domestic travel, Visit Europe Media Exchange and International Media Marketplace are great for different regions. If you belong to NATJA or SATW, you’ll meet a lot of PR representatives at their conferences. You can also monitor sites devoted to travel writing for trip announcements. See the travel writing resources section.

If you’re active on social media, that can help too, sometimes being reason enough on its own. As always, the best thing to do is raise your traffic and influence if you’re a blogger, raise your profile and your number of good clippings if you’re a freelancer. Then when you get invited, deliver in a big way so you can do it again.

Hey, they should be paying ME to go on this trip!

Some people don’t just get invited on press trips. They actually get paid to be there—either a daily rate or for a much higher level of deliverables than someone who’s not getting paid.

First though, a step back. Just 10 or 15 years ago, print writers got far more invites and attention than bloggers. It took a long time for travel destinations to wake up from their slumber, take a look around, and realize that most people were getting their travel planning info online, not from dead trees. They started to realize that while those 400-word magazine mentions may look nice hanging on a wall or on a “as seen in” web page, they don’t move the needle much in terms of visitors. Most travel research happens on the web and print publications are still shedding subscribers and advertisers at an alarming rate–if they’re surviving at all.

As we enter the 2020s, marketing and PR are still catching up when it comes to the travel space. They are still usually organized in old silos of “earned media” having one budget and “marketing and advertising” having another. Remember that most convention and visitors’ bureaus (CVBs) are goverment agencies. They’re not too quick to adapt. In Latin America and in many developing countries, cronyism rules and the whole agency can be a clueless bunch of political appointees and friends of the governor/president/prime minister. When there’s an election, the whole lot may be replaced with a new set of clueless cronies. You can call, e-mail, send a letter, or shout through a megaphone in Spanish and probably still not get anyone’s attention. There’s a reason you don’t read much about travel in these places. And a reason why their messaging seems so out of touch.

The more tech-savvy a country’s population is, the more likely they respect online media and understand the power of it. For some it will take years more to get there.

The good news for bloggers is that they are finally getting recognized for the serious clout they wield. They have true influence because they can impact buying decisions, not just throw up an article with pretty pictures for dreamers on a treadmill. In some cases there has been an overreaction in the other direction, with a destination shunning traditional media and spending all of their budget on paid influencers and social media. Sometimes the invite lists are prepared hastily, without much research, and then the destination complains that they got burned by fakers. (News alert, if you’re not going to vet them, Instagrammers are going to buy followers. It’s cheap.)

Yes, some people get paid to go on trips. Their justification is that they need to be paid for their time as a professional. I would argue if your site is doing well you’re getting paid even while you sleep, so you don’t need the subject of your articles to pay you on top of that and dictate terms, but I have done it too on occasion when editorial integrity was ensured in the contract. Understand though that this implies much more work. You are now a contracted employee of the organization paying the invoices and you will likely have a long list of things you must produce, in a set amount of time. With spreadsheets and reports.

A bit of advice…

No matter how this all works out for you, remember that too much of a good thing can be detrimental. I know a blogger who went on 27 press trips in one year, all around the world. Much of what she produced on the page was worse than what she used to write and by the end she was really burned out. It’s physically tough on your body to do this and it’s likely the work itself will suffer too if you’re on the road too much. Take time to reflect, to do deep work, and to get reasonably caught up in between those trips where you’re on the move constantly.

Also, it’s tempting to say yes to any invite, but first ask, “Is this right for me?” If it won’t resonate with your audience and it doesn’t fit your niche/slant as a blogger, you should probably pass. If you’re going to have to struggle to get it placed in an outlet as a freelancer, you probably shouldn’t go.

How about you? What did you learn on your path to press trips acceptance?

 

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